Wanted (badly): more Green Beret recruits
Wanted: Someone who can move undetected through jungle brush. Prefer a person who can strike with the force of a "lightning bolt." Must be able to swim long distances in boots and heavy clothing. Ability to order food in Arabic optional.
This is the gist of a recruiting pitch the Pentagon is putting out as it looks for the next generation of its elite soldiers, the Green Berets, to fight the terrorist wars of tomorrow.
In a bold attempt to capitalize on a surge of patriotism and buttress its aging corps, the Pentagon is offering application forms to the man-on-the-street for the first time since 1988. And, like NBA scouts at the start of highschool basketball season, recruiters are fanning out across the country in search of 400 men with the right stuff to wear the green beret.
The elite fighting division had, for years, filled its ranks by headhunting the best and brightest volunteers from the Army. But the depth of talent just isn't there anymore.
"They're going to be looking for the captain of the football team and the guy everyone looked up to in high school," says "John," a broad-chested Green Beret from Miami, filling out his gear bag at Ranger Joe's surplus shop on Bragg Boulevard here. "Believe me, there are undiscovered naturals all over this country."
The Green Berets are even looking for volunteers willing to transfer from Navy, Marines, and Air force divisions. Perhaps at no other time, analysts say, has the military's focus shifted so dramatically from tanks and cannons to the kind of all-round American troops largely credited for the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"There's been some reconsideration, if you will, a tailoring of the future concept of our tactics in war," says Dan Smith, chief of research at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "This training and recruitment for special forces is along those lines."
In a speech at National Defense University in Washington last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that more of what the Army often calls "military occupational specialists" are needed. "The department has known for some time that it does not have enough ... [of] certain types of Special Operations Forces," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Green Beret forces today number about 6,000, spread out from Bosnia to the Philippines. They are an intelligent, strong, and lethal band of brothers, all young men, whom the administration has pegged as the most likely choice of spear tip for what appears to be a protracted stab at terrorists outside the US.
Their jobs include rallying and training local militias, gathering "intel," and tromping through jungles and deserts. These troops are seen by many as the epitome of American ingenuity and self-reliance.
Which is why only half of the recruits actually make the grade. After basic training at Ft. Benning, Ga., the new civilian recruits come here to Ft. Bragg, America's largest Army base, to undergo three weeks of rucksack marches and intense psychological tests.
"They'll do stuff like put you on guard duty for three days straight, to see what you're made of," says John, the Special Ops soldier from Miami.
Once accepted, a special forces trooper isn't built overnight. In fact, it takes 80 weeks to build a civilian duffer into a lean, mean fighting machine, as able to engage enemies on the ground as make jokes in Tagalog.
"What you need is a combination of stamina, physical endurance, and mental toughness," says Capt. David Connolly, a spokesman for the US Army Recruitment Command at Ft. Knox, Ky.
While some soldiers showed surprise at the Army's new tack, others saw it coming.
"The Army has only been shrinking, and that means that the pool of capable soldiers has also been shrinking," says David, a retired special forces sergeant who, in the 1960s, taught the mountain-dwelling Montagnards to fight the Vietcong.
The move also comes at a time when the Army is vying to revamp its soldier schools to appeal to today's tech-savvy teens. At the JFK Special Warfare Center and School here at Ft. Bragg, for instance, top brass are now jazzing up their linguistics curriculum to incorporate state-of-the-art language software.
"A lot of our guys are getting older and retiring, and we're trying to find ways to appeal to the next generation of soldiers," says Tim Loney, the commander of Charlie Company, which runs the school.
Pay incentives have also been mooted. The base salary for a battle-ready soldier is about $1,500 per month. (Food and lodging are free.) Soldiers get $110 if they're "jumpers," and another $110 for serving in a combat zone. There are also marriage allotments that can run as much $400 a month.
But a pay raise may accompany the US Department of Defense's proposed 21 percent increase in the fiscal year 2003 budget for the US Special Operations Command - which oversees the Green Berets.
But will Americans, emboldened, perhaps, by patriotic fervor, enlist?
To some, the new gambit is the first real chance for Americans to join the war effort. Up to this point, however, there has not been a crush of civilian volunteers at recruitment offices. Some critics wonder if the Army will have trouble filling its ranks.
"What has not happened since 9/11 has been an increase in actual recruits," says Mr. Smith of the CDI. "I have watched the Army's reports about an upsurge in calls, but they tend to be mostly old fogeys wanting to reenlist or people calling to express their support."
Top brass stress that Americans now have a chance to support their country.
"The president has said that now is the time to step forward and do your time," says Army Lt. Col Ryan Yantis. "A lot of people who come to the Army come for the adventure, but, today, what's overriding that is the sense of service to country."